America is home to many wonderful things, but perhaps none are as wonderful as a good donut shop. Though donuts are not a uniquely American invention, in all my travels I have never found anything quite like the archetypal, hole-in-the-wall donut joint where you can show up at 3 a.m. and get a fresh maple bar for a $1.
Great donut shops dot the country, but are particularly indigenous to California. Maybe it’s the car culture, or the history of open space and cheap land, but in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles it seems like there’s a shop on every other corner. But whatever the reason, donut shops are an American experience that everyone should have. Here’s what to look for to know if you’re in the right place:
1. A great donut shop should be open 24 hours a day.
There is a misconception in certain parts of the country that donuts are a breakfast food and that vendors need only stay open until the early afternoon. But the truth is that a donut is delicious at any time of the day and, even better, night.
More importantly, donut shops that close early miss the point that they are fundamentally social spaces. In a society mostly lacking public plazas and convivial boulevards, donut shops are gathering places. They’re the final stop on an exceptional date; the refuge after last call; the break-room for the graveyard shift. The French have their cafes and the English have their pubs. In America, we have dimly lit donut store parking lots.
2. Basic donuts are the key, and they should be cheap and plentiful.
Great shops often experiment — the one in my hometown is famous for its strawberry donuts and the one by my apartment recently did an “emoji donut” — but put a considerable amount of their energy into making strong versions of the classics: cake donuts, old fashioned, maple bars, etc. And that makes sense; donuts are a food of the people, so producing large quantities of high-quality staples quickly keeps prices down.
In recent years there has been a proliferation of shops that turn this dynamic on its head. They focus primarily on specialities, charge high prices, and often tout their adherence to popular food trends. (I’m reminded here of Doughnut Plant.) I’m not saying there is no room in the world for these places, but they’re a bit like a fancy restaurant that co-opts a traditional peasant dish and serves it on a white plate at a high price.
3. The ambiance should be simple, and populist.
Pretension is the antithesis of a great donut shop. If a shop feels like an art gallery, that’s a red flag. If there is reclaimed wood anywhere inside, there could be a problem.
If on the other hand the shop feels like something from the 1970s — or like it hasn’t been thoroughly cleaned since the 1970s — stick around. If any part of the menu is hand written on a piece of paper, you’re probably in the right place.
After all, a great donut shop doesn’t need to invest in flashy decor or a slick environment to succeed. It succeeds on the merits of its donuts.
4. The menu should be limited primarily to donuts.
Some donut shops, particularly in LA, seem more like convenience stores. They sell ice cream and sandwiches and lotto tickets and Chinese food (I’m not kidding). Occasionally these places are amazing, like weird melting pot wonderlands that couldn’t exist anywhere else. More often, they feel generic and end up doing a lot of things poorly rather than one thing well.
In still other cases, donut shops aspire to be closer to fast food restaurants. Dunkin’ Donuts comes to mind here (though that’s merely one of Dunkin’s many transgressions.)
Most donut shops do serve things beside donuts — coffee, croissants, etc. — but if the donuts are really good that’s what people come back for.
— Jim Dalrymple II